Tuesday 1 February 2022

Warwickshire: Panda Bear Challenge race recap

My last four marathons have all had significant downsides*, so I was looking forward to a lovely, easy, trail run in a forest.  And Warwickshire delivered!  Set at a country park outside of Coventry, there was even a bonus helping of sunshine.  I had run a Big Bear Events race before (Staffordshire) which was similar and it had been great, so I had high hopes for this one.  Much preferable to the (road) Shakespeare Marathon, which I had originally booked for Warwickshire before it got canned due to Covid.  They made the decision six months in advance yet would only refund 50% of the entry fee and there was no option to postpone... not impressed! 

* Derbyshire: first 13 miles was uphill; Hertfordshire: 105 laps of a track; Tyne and Wear: running against a headwind in the middle of winter in Northern England; Wiltshire: 1500m ascent

Because this race was on a Tuesday, I had taken the day off work and drove up to my parents in Milton Keynes the night before.  Lots of people are surprised when I tell them I did a marathon on a Tuesday, but Big Bear regularly run random weekday events which I love.  You always get lots of 100 Marathon Club members (the clue is in the name ... they've all run at least 100 official marathons), and they tend to be very friendly.  Also there is nothing better than running a trail race when you'd normally be at work.  Especially if it's sunny and there's no time pressure.  I got up at the relatively civilised hour of 6:30am, had breakfast and drove to the race.

Literally the first thing the race instructions said was: "There is a carpark and you must pay. They only accept card payments. No coins or watches/phones".  I had read the instructions carefully.  I had made sure I packed a bank card when I went to my parents.  But on the morning of the race, I left my purse on the stairs as I didn't think I'd need it.  This only occurred to me as I crossed the car park to use the payment machine... oh no.  Oh dear.  Oh bumholes.

I prayed the race instructions were wrong and tried to use my phone anyway.  It failed twice.  There was a long queue of people waiting to use the machine and only 15 minutes before the race started.  Sheepishly, I asked the woman behind me if she could pay for me and I'd give her the money.  She agreed, and told me not to worry about the money, but I went and got it from the car and pressed it into her hand anyway.  I don't know her name, but I saw her quite a few times during the race and tried to offer encouraging words by way of thanks.  What a star!  

By the time I'd been to the loo, collected my number and dumped my bag, the race briefing was starting.  It included a description of the route, which I instantly forgot.

Here I am in my lovely Big Bear buff, which always makes me laugh.  Clever, huh?  Also useful for scaring small children in Tesco.

As usual, the start of the race was quite busy and it was quite a gentle start heading out towards the ponds. 

As predicted there were quite a few people in 100 Marathon Club t-shirts.  I used to find them quite intimidating but now I'm well on the way to joining them, I've realised it's just like collecting football cards or stamps or Pokemon.  Gotta catch 'em all.... ?
The country park is called Ryton Pools and the route snaked around 2 sides of this large pool.  A lot of it was hidden by trees - on one lap I caught sight of a man scrambled down the bank, trying to retrieve his dog's tennis ball from the pond with a stick.  But mostly it was pretty quiet, with just a few dog walkers and later a few parents and children making the most of the play areas.
At the beginning I had somehow failed to notice the rhino, but I soon spotted him on the first lap.  I had seen quite a few of these when I ran the London marathon and had always wondered how they trained wearing the costume.  Turns out they run round country parks in Warwickshire on a weekday!  WHO KNEW?!
The weather forecast had suggested an overcast day with heavy clouds, with any early sunshine soon disappearing.  But the sun came out and stayed out for much of the day.  I heard a plane overhead and stopped to take a photo of it, it looks almost like a bird here:
There was only one real hill on the course and as per usual, I walked up it even on the first lap.  It was short and steep (ish).  This photo makes it look more dramatic than it actually was.

It always takes me 5k to settle into a marathon and when it has laps, it usually takes two or three before I really get comfortable.  On the second lap I spotted the miniature railway - how on earth did I miss that? 

As I proceeded round the second lap, I started thinking about work. The night before I had stupidly checked my work emails at quarter to eleven.  Not the best time for bad news:

"Unfortunately, I regret to advise you were not selected for a place [on a Starting Out In Research Course] on this occasion.  The course was highly oversubscribed.  Yours was a strong application but you have not been in post for very long and we felt you might benefit from a course which was more specifically related to getting your work published"

Due to Covid, and moving jobs, and a number of other things, my ability to get involved in research has been limited, despite having wanted to ever since finishing university.  Myself and a colleague at my previous work had co-written an abstract which has now been peer reviewed and accepted for publication.  We're hoping to convert this into a full paper and get it published in a proper journal - so when I saw this course I thought it would be ideal.  I didn't realise it was competitive and was looking forward to it so felt pretty disappointed and disheartened not to have been chosen.   Especially as I'd been in my previous role for 18 months so it wasn't as if I was new to working at this level.  How am I meant to get started in research if I can't even get onto the 'getting started' course?

Running is the perfect activity for reflecting on things.  It's helped me work through a variety of disappointments and defeats.  I decided to just let myself feel disappointed for a while.  I allowed every whiny, "BUT IT'S NOT FAAAAAAIIIIIRRRRR" thought to wash over me. I felt a bit tearful with twinges of imposter syndrome - "why am I never good enough..?".  I felt annoyed at them for not picking me, which transitioned seamlessly into feeling annoyed at myself for having bashed out the application form in half an hour when I could've tried a bit harder.  After a couple of miles, finally I got a glimmer of Acceptance. I started thinking about what to do next.  I came up with a plan.  It might not be perfect, it might not be what I wanted, but it's the next logical step I can take and at least I'm doing something. 

As I reached the end of this process, I gradually caught up with the runner in front.  She was playing tinny music from her phone.  As I got closer, I realised it was "Come On Eileen".  It finished and the next song was "When The Going Gets Tough".   The horrific-ness of her playlist was enough to inspire me to pick up the pace and overtake her.  Thankfully I never saw her again.  Sorry lady!  It's not you, it's your music taste :)


Another funny interaction I had was with this lady.  Her top looked exactly like a Watford Joggers top and so as I overtook her, I asked, "Are you from Watford?"  She replied, "No... I'm from Coventry!" sounding slightly surprised.  We had a nice chat as apparently one of the local clubs round here uses the same red/white harlequin top - must be confusing at the London marathon.

On the third lap, I suddenly spotted the 'pirate themed playground' that had been mentioned in the race briefing.  It was actually pretty cool and literally right alongside the trail.  Goodness only knows how I missed it the first two laps...  The photo I took of the sail/skeleton looks really moody and atmospheric but was taken within seconds of the other three so it's just a trick of the light.

I don't remember much of the third or fourth loops.  Other than it was warm and I shed my gilet after running the first loop in t-shirt, jacket and gilet.  I tied the jacket round my waist the second loop, and left it behind at the aid station on the third loop.  I ran the 4th loop in just a t-shirt, laughing to myself that I was running out of layers to take off (!)  Luckily (for everyone) I needed to put my jacket back on on lap 5 as the weather cooled off a bit, haha.

This is the view from the end of the loop before rejoining the out-and-back section.

As I headed back I noticed the rhino had been accosted by small children and had knelt down on the floor to have his picture taken.  I heard the child's mum saying, "He's a very friendly rhino, don't be scared!  Why don't we put some money in his pot?"  I imagine this happens a lot when you run marathons dressed as a large safari animal.  I thought it was cute but not cute enough to inspire me to run a marathon wearing a heavy, awkward costume.  I once did 10k dressed as a strawberry and that was quite enough!

At the start of lap 5, my joy at being out on the trail was starting to wear off.  Realising you've got to do all of that again, plus starting to feel a bit tired, and feeling slightly uncomfortable due to gorging myself with aid station snacks, I just wasn't really feeling it.  But then I bumped into Jon.  Jon is a 100 Marathon Club veteran and, it transpires, is actually their Treasurer.  I asked how many marathons he'd done, because let's face it, it's never a hundred, is it?  Well no, it wasn't.  Today was his 298th.  Bloody hell.  His wife also runs and she's not far off 200 I think he said...

We proceeded to run together for the rest of the race.  He was a very interesting man and we shared life stories, race stories and he told me about all the epic and insane runs he has completed.  He was from Telford and knew Denzil, who was the race director of my Shropshire race (which remains one of my favourite counties despite having completed it nearly 3 years ago now), who it transpires was also running at today's event and they'd come in the same car - small world!  He also knew Lucas who I'd run Worcestershire with and saw briefly at Derbyshire.  So we had plenty to chat about.  He was also pretty speedy and I kept trying to slow down but failing.

On our last loop, we stopped to take a picture of these metal elephants which I'd noticed earlier but kept forgetting to take a picture of.

And that was it.  We put on a burst of speed at the end and managed to lap the rhino, which strangely pleased me despite not aiming to be fast at all.  We finished in 4 hours 24 minutes, which Jon told me was his fastest marathon since 2018!   I did a little bonus extra bit to make up the time on my Garmin to a marathon as I'd accidentally stopped it for 1/2 kilometre earlier in the race, then returned to the aid station to collect my medal, beer and flapjack.  The aid station was wonderfully well supplied, with food cut up into suitable sized pieces and placed into little paper bags.  They featured delights such as pizza, hot cross buns, falafel etc as well as bananas, jelly sweets, Tribe bars and all sorts of other goodies.

There was a poster showing the route, which I hadn't spotted until the end, but I didn't clock the inadvertent 'Strava art' until later, haha.


One of the friendly marshalls took a nice photo for me at the end:

Plus the obligatory selfie with my medal:

The race turned out to be less flat than I thought - eight laps with a few little hills each lap ended up with a pretty spiky elevation profile: 383m total which is not nothing!


I headed off to the car and although I was planning to save it, couldn't resist eating my super-tasty flapjack.

On the way back I was driving along absentmindedly when a sign on my left caught my eye.  It said 'Raining Cats and Dogs' which was the name of the kennels I passed when I was doing Escape from Meriden.... which was in Coventry.... OMG.... the penny dropped, I was on the A45, the scene of my traumatic night run!  It was broad daylight and as I drove along I could hardly believe that I had run this.  In the middle of the night.  On my own.  What a badass!

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